who owns the poem?

on april 18, 2009 sarah luczaj’s guest post “the lyric self” probed the question of “who is the ‘i’ in a contemporary lyric poem?” in this guest post today, janet riehl brings the question of ownership into the discussion as she now muses on and pursues it in this post.

sarah luczaj is a british therapist and writing living in poland. janet is a writer, artist, and musician living in st. louis. morecently she’s produced an audio book “sightlines: a family love story in poetry and music”   which expanded upon and amplified  “sightlines: a poet’s diary.”  you can explore her work at riehl life: village wisdom for the 21st century; there are also videos.

sarah luczaj opens her april post with a concise literary history of the development of the personal narrator (the “i”) in poetry. beginning with the 1800’s romantic era, sarah tracks its evolution in the 1900s and on into the present. as she noted, at its best this personal style of narration offered poets a new way to express individuality and authenticity.

like sarah in her own work, when i readied my volume of story poems, sightlines: a poet’s diary, for publication, i was confronted with the issue of “revealing self and others in poems.” (the issue is not specific to poetry alone; it is also one that prose memoirists struggle with.) in my case, the i-narrator was close to the same “i” that “made the toast…did the laundry.”  i wrote the literal and emotional truth as clearly as i understood it.

it was not an easy task. my older sister had recently perished in a senseless car wreck. the injuries my mother suffered required months of recuperation. in writing about the accident and its aftermath, i unavoidably probed at the raw wounds in our hearts.

the poems that spoke directly about family members and neighbors raised the question:  as the author, what is my responsibility to them? do they “own” the poems in any way? are they the ultimate holders of the truth of any poem dealing with them? do they “own” the truth?

what does ownership mean?

struggling with this made me come to believe that in the context of my own work, the concept of “ownership” is amorphous. for my purposes, the definition of ownership does not refer to legally defined real or intellectual property rights. rather, it refers to ethical ownership. deciding ownership requires taking into account spiritual, factual, experiential, and aesthetic elements, as well as respect and courtesy.

so who did my work belong to? who owned the truth of any given poem or the project as a whole?

since i was writing about family and community history, there were times when i turned to my father. in his 90s now, his memory is far clearer than mine, and he can reel off dates and details like a seasoned game show contestant. in one poem titled “walking riehl lane,” the viewpoints between poet (me) and historian (my father) amiably clashed.

the poem features the freeman family, whose connection to ours reaches back to my great-grandfather’s time. one particular stanza relates the story of how charlie freeman integrated his son, dickie, into the boy scout troop. my story of meeting charlie’s younger son, jimmy, on riehl lane follows in another stanza. to improve the flow of the poem, i melded the two brothers into one character, whom i called jimmie.

poetic license

my father agreed that the technique worked well in conveying this bit of history. but his historian’s heart protested. “facts! facts!”  my writer’s sensibility retorted, “poetic license!” we tossed the words back and forth like a baseball until we grinned, knowing that in this instance there would be no compromise on my part. i claimed ownership of the crafting of the poem and chose not to defer to my father’s deeply felt difference of opinion.

this question of ownership-in both the ethical and aesthetic sense-is the standard i used throughout both the book and audio book “sightlines” projects.

in two poems about eight-year-old amelia, my great-niece, i’d drawn on material from her life. i asked her mother to read and discuss the poems with her. amelia suggested a few changes, which made the poems richer and more poignant. at eight, amelia wasn’t concerned about subtle emotional or spiritual undertones. facts were what mattered to amelia, and her suggestions reflected that. she owned the facts of her life. i, again, controlled the craft of the poem and incorporated her perception of reality so as to create an aesthetically pleasing whole.

in contrast, there was work i did not allow anyone to read until after publication. i knew that there were those who would undoubtedly be unhappy with some of the poems, but i wanted the work to reflect what i saw, believed, and experienced as the truth. i didn’t want their negative input before the fact. if they were upset that i hadn’t prettied up or whitewashed what our family was going through, so be it. the poems expressed my personal truth. i owned them.

the subsequent audio book included both my poems and music from my father’s youth, so we teamed up on the project. i retained ownership of the overall shape of project and my personal writing. however, i ceded ownership to my father for how his music was presented in relationship to my work. he owned the music not only because he had written much of it himself, but mainly because this music was the purest expression of his heart’s blood.

elsewhere in sarah’s post she asks, “what is the difference between writing a diary and a poem, and is it really the case that a diary is necessarily more authentic?”

“writing poetry is the act of distilling the essence,” she holds. journaling, in contrast, can include as much slush as we need to process what we’re experiencing in our lives and in our souls. we “write poems to find out what can be said about something.”

in “sightlines: a poet’s diary, “as the subtitle indicates i straddled the line between poem and diary entry. i wrote at least one poem every day in my journal, sometimes as many as three. i wrote early in the morning, in bed, tea at my side. at the sounds of slight stirring by my parents, i would rush downstairs to take over the caretaking of my mother. throughout the day i made notes in order to have material to work on later.

how did this writing differ from my usual prose journal writing? during this time almost all my journal-writing energy was channeled into the poetry. my intention was to create a book to share with others, and journaling in the poetic form suited the intimate nature of what i conceived the book to be. i journaled in poetry, later crafting the work into finished pieces.

in a typical journal entry, i might have written “i feel sad this morning,” a factual report of emotion. in the completed book that sorrow became a leitmotif running through the 90 poems. rather than using direct statement, i recorded our hearts in understated language and images.

sarah says, “this seems to be what we are doing all the time, taking people’s stories inside and being changed by them.” this was certainly how it played out for me.

as our family slogged together through our grief in the wake of my sister’s death, i observed my brother, my mother, my father, and myself. we each had our stories. i absorbed these stories and released them again as poetry. the “i” in every one is all of us and each of us. and the “i” is the real life me, telling the story as truthfully and as clearly as i could. these stories were not just for our family. no, these stories reached out to join the stories of the world-and to embrace all the families who knew grief and loss all too intimately.

this post followed the previous stop on the tour at sharmana russell’s blog.  the next stop on the tour will be eden maxwell.


  1. janet, thanks for this insightful post. the question of ownership is indeed interesting.

    can truth be owned?

    what is a truth?

    one aspect of this is that the truth has – well, many aspects. i’m sitting in my dining room right now. if i don’t describe everything to you that is in the dining room (never mind the parts of the kitchen and the living room that i can see) – will i be lying by omission? not really. i have to select a few aspects of this truth if i want to give you a more or less accurate picture. and that’s just the visual stuff. we’re not talking about the make-up of the fibres of the underlay rug, or how many of the dust particles on the wooden grille are cat dandruff.

    the whole truth is inaccessible. therefore it cannot be owned.

    the poem is your way of telling the story. so i’d say, the poem is owned by you.

    to my mind, the question is – who owns the story?

    what do others think?

  2. Creative works are liable to radical reassignment and reinterpretation. A singer who records an iconic rendition of a song owns that song in some way. If you were from Mars and you had human tastes, you would think that O Canada was a godawful militaristic dirge, but for a lot of people it has become something entirely different, an anti-militarist symbol even, for those who think that Canadianness is in part defined by rejection of US foreign policy and gun laws.

  3. Isabella and Robert,

    Thanks for this interesting discussion.

    Yes, “…the concept of “ownership” [and truth…and story] is amorphous. For my purposes, the definition of ownership does not refer to legally defined real or intellectual property rights.

    Rather, it refers to ethical ownership. deciding ownership requires taking into account spiritual, factual, experiential, and aesthetic elements, as well as respect and courtesy.”

    Story and truth and ethical ownership is based on interpretation and perception.

    These factors are inherently personal, therefore varying and only one facet of some totally unknown whole.

    Art is carefully crafted to bring out the clearest version of our truth, our story. And…we are mandated to make this version compelling and helpful to our audience.

    In the case of describing your dining room, Isabella, I would not care about the full description. The angle of what you choose to reveal and which details you choose are determined by your potential audience. Is is Architectural Digest? Then, your reader wants to know about the structure and design of the room. Is it an interior decorating magazine? Then, we want to know about that rug of yours…its fiber and so forth.

    If you are writing a memoir, then, this audience most wants to know about the emotional associations and the stories that have taken place here with the dining room as a back-drop, as a set in a play of a movie.

    Knowing your audience is as important in crafting and revealing the story as knowing yourself is.

    Janet Grace Riehl

    Janet Riehl’s last blog post..Teleseminar Recording: Memoir Moments with Kendra Bonnett & Matilda Butler

  4. Hi Janet,

    I hesitate to comment in cold text on such personal things. There are a couple of issues of interest to me.

    Authenticity. For me this has to do with how personal what we say is (how close something is to our core) and not just how close it is to accurate reporting (“I am sad”).

    Ownership. Legality is a pretty crass way to handle personal matters – including ownership and presentation of experience. One answer is that it depends on how the thing is presented (if it says “novel” on the cover then its not non-fiction). With poems this is trickier, but I think it is fair for people to look at the author’s name on the cover and if a poem in the book is presented as someone else speaking, the reader should be able to figure out authorship.

    I think we are social individuals, not isolated individuals – legality usually presents us isolated individuals. We also use ideas and poems and many other cultural items every day and are shaped by them (this is acknowledged legally in fair use and quotations and so on). I don’t think a legal system is capable of acknowledging how we incorporate something and make it our own – Miles Davis’ (and the other players”) Kind of Blue I have listened to repeatedly, it is becoming part of the background to my experience. I am part of the Evangelical Christian tradition (whether I like it or not in some ways – I have been shaped by my upbringing: I own parts of this tradition – it’s emphasis on ethical responsibility etc but not others – dis-esteeming our physicality etc).

    I think if we are open to each other then we can communicate and share our experience and both be changed by it. These are poetic moments – not easily captured by (legalistic) ideas of ownership.

    Thanks for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    Evan’s last blog post..Living Authentically Brings You Lasting Satisfaction

  5. Oh! And don’t forget our TREASURE HUNT contest.

    The clue for Isabella’s site is:

    First, watch VIDEO 3: Sightlines Blog Tour Video #3: Stage 1–Recording on the top post of http://www.riehlife.com.

    Second, answer today’s question: How did Janet find her voice in recording her poems during the 8 hour session?

    Third, contact Janet using the contact form at http://www.riehlife.com

    The winner receives a free audio book.

    Janet Riehl

    Janet Riehl’s last blog post..Teleseminar Recording: Memoir Moments with Kendra Bonnett & Matilda Butler

  6. I recently read a piece (New Yorker) about a neurology researcher (V.S. Ramachandran) who has found answers to why those who have lost limbs feel “phantom pain” in the missing limb. Those sensations of pain are happening in sections of the brain that used to control the missing limb, now receiving no stimulus, but which are then colonized by linkages to other parts of the body. He found that the pain was especially common in people who had suffered injuries where the limb was constrained for a long time (such as in a cast) before it was finally amputated. The researcher has found extremely creative ways to relieve that pain, using mirrors (and reflections of the other, intact limb) to create the illusion that the missing limb is still there, and then to help people to “exercise” the missing limb.

    The article also talks about his discovery of how specific sections of the brain control specific parts of the body and their movement, and most interestingly, that when we watch someone else doing something difficult, like some kind of feat of physical dexterity using the hands, for example, the section of our brain that controls our own hands lights up. This is the basis of “empathy,” I suppose, and Ramachandran did interesting further work to demonstrate that those with autism don’t have this empathic response.

    I wonder if the writing of “Sightlines” was for Janet the kind of exercise with reflections similar to the experiment/therapy described above, working through the pain of the sister lost. And I wonder whether the rest of us, reading her poems, are not engaging in our brains with those struggles she was going through, exercises in empathy.

    These comments are not meant to reduce poetry to neurons, nor to claim ownership of these thoughts (MY NEURONS!), but simply to share one more metaphor that struggles to touch the edges of poetry.

  7. Dear Evan,

    I just read your blog:

    You have thought deeply about this topic and make good points.

    I mostly agree. I would emphasize the importance of effort (“work” known by another name.

    All too often folks tend to think that the path of joy and bliss means that everything will be super easy and big fun.

    I know you don’t mean this. But, it’s important to underline that your path of joy, bliss, authenticity often means putting in hours and hours of homework drudgery to support your dream.

    This has certainly been my experience. During these times I am sustained by vision for the final result/product…and, my Midwestern work ethic.

    Creativity, I believe is just as Edison said…99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

    Janet Riehl

    Janet Riehl’s last blog post..Teleseminar Recording: Memoir Moments with Kendra Bonnett & Matilda Butler

  8. Dear Alan,

    Thanks for this linkage of your reading on neurons with the experience of both composing and reading/hearing the poems presented in the Sightlines Collections of book and audio book.

    Hmmm…people often ask if these poems were a cathartic experience for me. Perhaps. But, not in the usual sense we think of. There was no oozing emotion as one might ooze blood from a wound.

    But yes, somehow having this project before me directed and saved my life during that year following Julia’s death. Because…I felt useful. Because…it gave me a positive direction towards a time that promised to be:
    –less painful..
    –more ordered.

    Readers and listeners have, in fact told me that there is something so direct and uncontrived about the the poems that they reach directly into their hearts.

    Since the heart is where empathy lives, that substantiates your supposition.

    Janet Riehl

    Janet Riehl’s last blog post..Teleseminar Recording: Memoir Moments with Kendra Bonnett & Matilda Butler

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